Study up on the Battle of Gettysburg.
Gentle reader, as of today I will be taking a “ten-day recharge,” a short sabbatical, from writing anything new. I will continue to wake up early in order to stay in the habit, and I will continue to post a blog now and then, but mostly I plan on using my time to read, and to read a lot. If you’re excited about such things, here is my upcoming list:
The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro
Undermajordomo Minor, by Patrick DeWitt
Sabbath’s Theater, by Philip Roth
It is 5:41 AM, and I’ve been awake for just over an hour. This happens to me every day – and it happened to me even before I became a father. My alarm is set for 4:30.
I don’t have a job that starts at 5:30 or 6:00. I don’t work at a coffee shop, or on the loading dock of some warehouse somewhere. I get up so early because I need to write, it has to happen sometime, and I think a pretty strong case can be made for the ass-crack of dawn in the debate about “When We Have Time To Do Shit.”
Several important cogs are spinning in this wheel:
1.) If you’re writing seriously, you’re writing consistently. I will present the argument that it does matter when, specifically, during your day you are working, but first things first: there has to be a schedule. Some people work on word count, others on a timer, but the important thing is that they have set some sort of a goal for themselves: a time to be there and the days of the week they will be there at that time. My own personal goal is 5:00-7:00 AM, Monday through Friday. I know others who work 8:00-Noon, apparently because they’ve found the Holy Grail of Jobs For Writers. I find I get down between 400-600 words in my two hours, and that’s solid for me, because I’m a slow writer.
2.) Once you get used to starting your day so early, the cobwebs that used to be there every time the alarm went off will start to fade. And when you’ve made it to this point, the morning is clearly the best time to be writing. Here’s why:
2a.) Everyone else is still asleep.
2b.) Your phone may as well be off, even if you’re not one of those people who has the ability to turn it off and keep it off when they’re working, because see 2a.
2c.) If you’re working during the day, the rest of the day’s problems have had time to seep into your subconscious, worry you, distract you. In my experience, this tends to flatten my writing. Plus, having to answer my phone, or even to have to worry about whether or not I’ll have to answer my phone, is a terrible distraction for me. If you’re one of those people who says they are able to ignore their phone at will, I’ll call you a liar right to your face.
2d.) If you’re working during the day, somebody will need you for something. Always.
2e.) If you’re trying to work after everyone’s gone to bed, you’re too tired, not to mention 2c.
Malcolm Gladwell has a rule in his book Outliers called the 10,000 Hour Rule: to achieve true mastery in any field, one must practice purposefully for 10,000 hours. Even at two hours a day, five days a week, it will take me over 19 years to have “mastered” my craft. (Some people, who are missing the point, have questioned Gladwell’s assertion; peep this Business Insider article that somewhat misguidedly claims Sid Vicious was a “master” musician because the Sex Pistols became wildly popular, while in the same breath admitting he could “barely play his bass.” I think the matter at hand still stands: if you want to do something extraordinarily well, you’re going to need to do it a whole, whole lot.)
So grab a cup of coffee and a handful of pecans and get crackin’. That nineteenth-century romance novel about a young worker boy and his delightfully perky sidekick ain’t gonna write itself.
Let me preface: I’m not an expert. Not even close. And even if somebody told you that they held the Golden Key to getting published, they’d be full of shit. You want the truth, come to Belmont Foghorn.
But I have found a couple of methods that might, conceivably, work for writers working to establish themselves in the publishing game, especially writers of short fiction (although these will work for you essayists and poets out there, too-we’re not excluding you just because you’re outcasts):
1.) Write the best story you can write. Plenty of people give this advice, and that’s because it’s probably the single unwavering bit there is when it comes to placing your work in journals. Everything else might have caveats, but this absolutely does not. (And it works even if you’re writing weird shit; there are plenty of journals that want to publish weird shit.)
2.) If you’re writing weird shit, find the journals that want to publish weird shit, and submit to them. You know that little blurb on every journal’s website that says, “To get an idea what we’re looking for, read an issue first”? They’re not kidding. But most of the time you don’t have to go that far: these days you can peruse the journal’s website and find out a lot of what you need to know (and mags like Kenyon Review even have online features solely meant for online content, so you can read right there what they’re looking for).
2a.) For help with this, subscribe to Duotrope. It’s 5 clams a month, but if you’re serious about finding the hip journal that’s going to publish your revolutionary work, it’s worth every penny.
3.) Utilize that most wonderful of creations, the thing that’s allowed both the insanely rapid proliferation of literary magazines and the insanely rapid proliferation of people who think they should be in those magazines: the simultaneous submission. Almost everybody is okay with them these days (they have to be), and though they may ask you to let them know in your cover letter (see #4), they’ll get over it. Also, should you have the good fortune of getting published, TELL EVERYONE ON YOUR LIST (see #5), and make sure you withdraw your piece from them.
4.) Write a short cover letter that doesn’t suck. Some mags will tell you exactly what they want, but the shorter the better. Often, the name of the piece, the word count, a (very) brief listing of what and where you’ve published (pick the three best and then say, “…among others” – like this: “My work has appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, and MAD Magazine, among others.”) and a “thank you” is plenty.
5.) DON’T carpet bomb, but DO submit to as many places as you can find that publish work like yours. This takes stamina and organization: you have to make a LIST. Your list should include, for each piece you’ve submitted: Name of piece. Name of mag. Date of submission. Type of submission (Submittable/email/snail mail). This way, if you get something accepted, you can remember exactly when and how you submitted to everyone else, and go through the same process to withdraw your piece from them. Also, if you know the date you submitted, you can (and it IS OK to) query them after a while to find out what’s up with your piece. Read the journal’s guidelines on this to find out how to not piss them off, but standard is >3 months, go ahead and ask.
5a). If you get rejected from a place on your list, write “REJECTED” beside it. Same goes if you get ACCEPTED. Same goes if you get an ENCOURAGING REJECTION, which my time as an editor of a lit mag tells me does happen, and the editors really do mean they want you to submit something else that may fit their pub a little better. If you’re noting all the different responses you’re getting, you’re better able to make decisions about where to send other pieces.
6.) Do whatever you have to do to get over rejection, but any way about it, get over it and get over it fast. It’ll happen, and it’ll happen a lot, and that’s okay. If your work gets accepted one in fifty times, you’re actually kind of on a roll. When I finish a piece, I initially try to find ten different mags I think will take it. If one of them takes it, I’ve beaten the odds.
7.) It’s OK to submit to the pie-in-the-sky mags, just re-read #6.
After a busy holiday season and some rumblings and ramblings about getting a short story collection out into the world, I’ve started writing some fresh material, including some (possibly) humorous essays, which is something I haven’t done too much of in my writing life. I’m trying to keep up with submissions, more on which later. For now, this week’s Tub:
The Revenant, historical fiction, by Michael Punke.
Empire of Illusion, nonfiction/essays, by Chris Hedges.
“The Gay Old Dog,” by Edna Ferber.
“My Old Man,” by Ernest Hemingway.
“Brothers,” by Sherwood Anderson.
“Haircut,” by Ring Lardner.
- All of which, incidentally, are from the new compendium edited by Lorrie Moore, 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories, which overall I’m quite impressed with so far, although F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, “Babylon Revisited,” seems to me one of the single most difficult pieces of fiction to get involved in that I’ve ever tried. I’m aware I’m in the minority. I don’t like Pink Floyd either.
Been a slow week in the tub, which must mean it’s been a quick week everywhere else. Here’s last week’s reading list:
The Silence of the Lambs, by Thomas Harris. Still working.
“Monologue of Isabel Watching it Rain in Macondo,” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
“The Shot,” by Eric Rutter
“Counting,” by Jayne Anne Phillips
“Patriotism,” by Yukio Mishima
“I Will Love the 21st Century,” by Mark Strand
What we westerners tend to call hara-kiri is, in Japan, more commonly referred to as seppuku – the ritualized act of cutting open one’s own abdomen as a means of inflicting a mortal wound. We think of samurai, often; in fact, there could be many reasons for someone to commit seppuku: shame; the loss of a master in battle; as an expression of disagreement for a decision that has been made or for the ways in which a superior has conducted himself. The ceremony would have been almost ironically long: there was a letter to write, sake to drink in a very particular way, and a friend or adviser standing ready to sever the head (the standing man in the photo; the initial, self-inflicted, wound in seppuku, though indeed mortal, is not intended to be the fatal one).
For years, the writer Nick Hornby has been keeping a running list not only of the books he’s read, but also of the books he’s purchased. It took me actually copy-catting Hornby’s idea to realize what a boost it can be to a writer’s confidence… after all, if you’re in the business of paraphrasing Stephen King out of context, you’ll know that if you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to write. Anyway, this week I began making a list myself of literary things coming through my circle, and I’m going to keep it running here on the Foghorn if for no other reason than to look back on it and realize that I must have time to write.
Finished, finally: Shotgun Lovesongs, by Nickolas Butler
The Submission, by Amy Waldman
Started: The Silence of the Lambs, by Thomas Harris
“Young Goodman Brown,” by Nathaniel Hawthorne
“Walking Into the Wind,” by John O’Farrell
“Whoever Was Using This Bed,” by Raymond Carver
“Home Sweet Home,” by Hannah Tinti
“Death By Landscape,” by Margaret Atwood
“Motherlode,” by Thomas McGuane
“The Yellow Wallpaper,” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
From the kingston daily freeman, dec. 7 1909
Schenectady’s labor scene has, at times, been a fierce battleground, and at no time was this more true than the early nineteen-hundreds. Once General Electric and ALCO (formerly the Schenectady Locomotive Works) began operations there, the city experienced massive population growth, due mainly to an influx of immigrants looking for work–many of whom had begun their searches in New York City and had come away unsuccessful. Schenectady’s youthful energy drew thick crowds of electrical workers, iron workers, shop owners and unskilled labor, but as a result of the rapid multiplication of human bodies, the city’s wards, especially Ward 3 (now in the Stockade neighborhood), often became areas of tenement living.
George R. Lunn, circa 1910. The first Socialist mayor in the State of New York. Popular with the working immigrant class (especially Italians and Poles), and, at least for a time, a leading organizer of labor strikes against Schenectady’s then-thriving manufacturing giants. Lunn ran for mayor on a platform of anti-corruption, but his dedication to Socialism has fallen into question by modern reformist historians, and his re-election as mayor–this time as a Democrat–after a two-year gap lends this notion some credence. Lunn, incidentally, was also a minister, which is where much of his early popularity came from, as he often gave sermons based on continuing income disparity in Schenectady.